ASHLAND, Ky. – As the players prepared to go through the door leading into James A. Anderson Gymnasium for the championship game of the Tomcat Shootout simulation tournament, they came together in the area where the swimming pool used to be.
The image was like a boxing weigh-in with the competitors looking straight ahead with glassy stares. There was no emotion.
Even though they had a healthy respect for each other, neither side was going to blink first. Nobody looked down at their feet or looked away. It was intense, focused, game faces.
Friendships could wait until after the game. Too much was on the line to let down your guard. It was time to play basketball.
Hobie Rogers, wearing his spiffy maroon sports jacket, swung the door open and out came the 1960-64 Tomcats with Harold Sergent and Larry Conley pumping their fists into the air as the crowd roared its approval. A few seconds later came the 2015-20 Tomcats with the Villers brothers and others and their side of the gym leaped on its feet and began cheering madly.
I’m not sure, but I think Hobie was wiping tears from his eyes after both teams were completely onto the floor doing their drills.
Public address guru Chuck Rist was spinning the songs, first from the 60s and then from the 20s. He was having more fun than anybody.
It was a cultural happening.
The cheerleaders were different from the way they dressed to how they led cheers. The 60s girls were in bloused skirts to their ankles and a few of them had megaphones while the 20s cheerleaders wore short skirts that allowed them to flip their way around the gymnasium. The contrast was striking.
The 1960s was meeting the 21st Century.
One thing hadn’t changed: The game of basketball where the object was to score more points than your opponent.
Tipoff was 20 minutes away.
Jason Mays and Bob Wright, the respective coaches of the Tomcat decades simulation teams, stood together with arms crossed at midcourt exchanging pleasantries but not much else. They were talking, but both were being coy when it came to talking about their own teams. Everybody was looking for an edge.
There wasn’t a seat remaining in Anderson gym. In fact, the aisles were full of fans, too. It was a sea of maroon. “The biggest crowd I’ve seen in here and probably more than is allowed,” said AD Mark Swift, trying to count by hand the number in the gym. “I don’t want to have to tell anybody to leave, but we go by the rules here in Tomcat Nation.”
The fire marshal would have to look away on this night or risk a riot.
Only five minutes before tipoff and both teams left the floor for final instructions. The place was dripping with anticipation.
The 60s cheerleaders were getting their side to stand up and cheer and out from the stands came Joe Swartz, who owned the pharmacy on the corner of Central and 22nd Street and umpired countless Little League games in Ashland during the 1960s. He was the superfan of his era.
Before every home game, he would go to center court and give his famous cheer:
“When you’re up, you’re up
When you’re down, you’re down
When you’re up against the Tomcats
You’re upside down!”
Both sides seemed to receive a jolt of energy – as if they needed it – from big Joe’s cheer. The place was bumpin.
And in a surprise that nobody knew about, the Judds, Naomi and Wynonna, returned to Ashland to sing the national anthem. They also sang “My Old Kentucky Home” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
Now, at last, it was time to play.
Mays said before the game that Conley was his biggest concern and that “he would have to earn whatever points he gets.” He acknowledged, though, that the rest of these 60s Tomcats comprised one of the greatest teams he’d ever coached against with no exceptions.
“They shoot it well, rebound well, pass well, play defense well,” he said. “No wonder they were state champions. A great, great team and that’s not hype.”
Wright called the 2015-20 Tomcats the “ultimate team” and a scoring machine that was going to be hard to keep under 100.
“Great passers and shooters,” he said. “I love watching this team except when they’re playing my team.”
Neither team showed much sign of nervousness early with both teams able to score points rather easily. Up and down the floor they went at a frantic pace.
The message was sent early to Conley that this wasn’t going to be easy. Less than a minute into the game, Cole Villars plastered him into the mat on the wall when he went in for a layup. It wasn’t a dirty foul, but it was a hard one. Conley made both free throws, a harbinger of what was to come.
The biggest lead either team had in the first quarter was five points at 18-13 after Conley sank a pair of free throws. He scored a dozen points in the first quarter, but the 2015-20 Tomcats held a 29-28 advantage. Their biggest lead had been 27-23 on Ethan Hudson’s smooth 15-footer from the corner.
“We kind of got a feel for each other in that first quarter,” Conley said. “They were trying to be physical with me, but we loved that kind of game. Gene Smith, Dale Sexton and Harold Sergent never backed down from a good fight.”
The fouls began piling up for the 2015-20 Tomcats who were at a size disadvantage as well. It began to take a toll in the second quarter. During one stretch Conley completed back-to-back three-point plays when he was fouled while driving. That stretched the lead to double figures for the first time at 54-44.
“I don’t know how he made those two shots,” Mays said. “Selly (Ethan Sellars) went across his arms hard on both of those fouls. That was a big stretch for them.”
Devaunte Robinson connected on a 15-footer at the buzzer, but the 2015-20 Tomcats trailed 61-50 in a high-scoring first half. The 60s Tomcats were beating them at their own game.
“We had to make some changes,” Mays said. “They did a good job on Christian and Cole in the first half. Those guys had to get more touches. Devaunte kept us in the game. He was on tonight and we knew it. That was a good sign.”
True enough, Robinson’s shooting stroke was good. He scored 13 in the first half.
As for the strategy of hacking Conley, it wasn’t working well. Larry Legend had 25 points and it was only halftime.
“How do you stop that guy?” Mays asked rhetorically. “I sure don’t know.”
The 2015-20 Tomcats find their groove early in the second half, trimming the deficit to 66-62 within the first minute. Cole Villers and Robinson were getting hot. They regained the lead at 72-71 when Robinson swished a 3-pointer off a fancy pass from Colin Porter, who had his own battle with Sergent out front.
“Watching their little guard and Harold go at each other was the highlight for me,” Wright said. “That was the best matchup of the night.”
Porter’s scoring was limited but not his passing. He finished with 12 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. Sergent scored 15 and had three assists. Their play seemed to negate each other.
Meanwhile, there was still no slowing down Conley, who had piled up 36 points by the time the third quarter was over. A three-point play from Ditto Sparks inside the last second put the 60s Tomcats back in front 85-82 going into the last 12 minutes.
The gym had a steady loudness throughout the three quarters and now it was almost shaking. Nobody was going anywhere and it was like a fuse had been lit waiting for the big explosion to come.
Statistic sheets were flying on the scorer’s table from where Dicky Martin was broadcasting with Dirk Payne. In the corner on the visiting side, a table was set up for Dick Martin and Pete Wonn, who were describing the action for the 60s Tomcats.
There was no cultural gap here. Both the Martins were berating officials over some “questionable calls” against their respective Tomcats. It just went to show what a good job they were doing.
Dirk, a 1962 graduate, was torn on what team he wanted to win. He never did decide but sure enjoyed the moment.
The game remained tight with the biggest margin being 92-85 for the 60s Cats after Jim McKenzie scored on an offensive rebound.
Following a timeout from Mays, the 20s Cats got their footing back. They pulled within 99-97 when Porter beat Sergent to the basket and then tied the game at 99 on Chase Villers’ 14-footer from in front of the foul line with 3:35 remaining.
Over the rest of the game, the score was tied at 101, 103, 105, 107 and 110 with big shots from a variety of players. The 60s Tomcats were leading 110-107 with 23 seconds remaining when Robinson lined up for a 3-pointer and was fouled while shooting it. His triple swished to tie it at 110 and he made the free throw, completing the four-point play, for his 30th point and a 111-110 advantage. Anderson gym was going bonkers with an almost maddening sound from both sides and only 13 seconds remained.
Wright called for a timeout and the noise level increased so much there was ringing in your ears.
“I’ve never heard anything like that,” Rist said. “You couldn’t even hear the music and it was up at the loudest level.” He had cued up Elvis Presley and “It’s Now or Never” but, unfortunately, nobody could hear it over the cheers.
The teams broke the huddle. This was going to be it. Thirteen seconds to victory for one of them. They had given fans a show for the ages, the best game ever played in Anderson gym.
Mays had the 20s Tomcats pick them up man-to-man at halfcourt. Sergent was handling the ball and it zipped around the perimeter and eventually back to him where he launched a shot from the elbow over Porter’s outstretched hand. The shot spun out, but one hand rose above the rest. Guess who? It was Larry Legend, who tipped the ball back into the basket and the 60s Cats had done it! Final score: 112-111.
Within seconds of the tip-in, Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips” was playing over the sound system. Rist was a master.
Conley’s tip-in gave him 45 points. He was 13 of 20 from the field and 19 of 26 at the foul line in a command performance that will be remembered for ions.
“He was the difference,” Mays said. “We couldn’t stop him right to the end.”
When the game was over, the players from both sides embraced, talked and laughed with each other. They had earned respect.
“Those are the greatest players in Tomcat history,” said Cole Villers, who had 19 points and seven rebounds. “It was an honor to go against them. Larry Conley is like a magician out there. We had him boxed out on that last play but he found a way, and that’s what great players do. Incredible. We didn’t lose this game. They won it.”
Christian Villers and Hudson scored 16 apiece while Chase Villers and Porter scored 12 apiece.
Smith collected 12 points and 13 rebounds and Sparks scored 11 with five assists to back Conley’s amazing effort that also included 13 rebounds and five blocked shots.
The 2015-20 Tomcats were called for 32 fouls – seven players ended up with four fouls apiece – in a vain attempt to slow down the 60s Cats. The difference at the foul line was striking with the 60s Cats making 34 of 48 and the 20s Cats only 21 of 30.
“That is a big difference, but the officiating was great,” Mays said. “We put them on the line with a lot of fouls.”
“By gawd, the fouls weren’t even,” screamed Dicky Martin. “Let’s call it what it is: We got took!”
(Nobody else agreed with him, but it wouldn’t be real if Dicky didn’t make that comparison.)
Wright said it was one of the greatest wins of his career and maybe the best game he could remember too.
“Those 20s Cats are champions too,” he said. “I felt like I was going against a coaching chess master. Coach Mays is one of the best I’ve ever seen. We just got the last touch on the ball, literally. I wouldn’t want to figure out a way to stop Larry Conley either. I’m not sure it’s possible.”
Meanwhile, “Respect” from Aretha Franklin was blaring over the gym’s sound system as the players and fans started filing out.
It seemed fitting.
Tomcat Shootout All-Tournament
Larry Conley (MVP), 1960-64
Harold Sergent, 1960-64
Gene Smith, 1960-64
Christian Villers, 2015-2020
Cole Villers, 2015-2020
Colin Porter, 2015-2020
Mark Surgalski, 2000-2004
Arliss Beach, 2000-2004
Larry Castle, 1955-1959
Jeff Tipton, 1980-1984
Ronnie Griffith, 1970-1974
Marty Thomas, 1990-1994
2015-2020 TOMCATS (111) – Porter 4-9 4-4 12, Robinson 9-17 7-9 30, Cole Villers 7-19 5-9 18, Chase Villers 6-14 0-0 12, Hudson 7-17 2-4 16, Christian Villers 6-13 3-4 16, Miller 0-6 0-0 0, Sellars 2-4 0-0 4, Bradley 1-2 0-0 2, Mays 0-1 0-0 0. FG: 42-102. FT: 21-30. 3FG: 6-13 (Porter 0-3, Robinson 5-6, chase Villars 0-1, Christian Villars 1-2, Sellars 0-1). Rebounds: 50 (Porter 7, Robinson 2, Cole Villars 7, Chase Villars 7, Chrsitian Villars 2, Miller 8, Sellars 6, Bradley 7). Assists: 26 (Porter 11, Cole Villars 4, Chase Villars 5, Hudson 4, Miller 1, Sellars 1). PF: 32. Turnovers: 17.
1960-64 TOMCATS (112) – Sparks 4-7 3-3 11, Sergent 6-9 2-2 15, Hilton 2-13 5-9 9, Smith 6-14 0-0 12, Conley 13-20 19-26 45, Cram 1-7 1-2 4, McKenzie 2-3 1-2 5, Beam 0-5 2-2 2, Sexton 2-3 1-2 5, Wright 2-7 0-0 4. FG: 38-88. FT: 34-48. 3FG: 2-3 (Sergent 1-1, Hilton 0-1, Cram 1-1). Rebounds: 65 (Sparks 2, Sergent 1, Hilton 7, Conley 13, Smith 13, Cram 6, McKenzie 7, Beam 4, Sexton 5, Wright 7). Assists: 16 (Sparks 5, Sergent 3, Hilton 1, Smith 2, Conley 1, Cram 3, Beam 1). PF: 27. Turnovers: 20.
2015-2020 TOMCATS 29 21 31 29 – 111
1960-1964 TOMCATS 28 33 24 27 – 112